Before you all jump on me, I am well aware that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States. So while Southwest’s announcement that it will begin flying to San Juan is not actually an announcement of international flying, it is a big step toward that. Puerto Rico is kind of a hybrid between domestic and international flying in the airline world.
Beginning on April 14, Southwest will have its first scheduled flight outside the contiguous 48 states when it starts flying to San Juan from Orlando three times a day and from Tampa once a day. These aren’t really new flights but rather flights that are being flown by AirTran today. On April 14, AirTran stops and Southwest starts.
The competition is stiff on these routes with JetBlue operating 7 times a day from Orlando and twice a day from Tampa, but clearly they’re routes that Southwest wants to keep. Still, there is a more likely reason why Southwest has chosen San Juan for its first routes outside the continental US. Flying to San Juan is like having training wheels for international flights.
Flying the Flag
You may have heard that the term “flag carrier” before. You may have assumed that a “flag carrier” is the national airline of a country, and that is true in many cases. In the US, that isn’t the case, but there is still a very specific definition of a flag carrier here.
Every scheduled flight in the US with more than 9 seats onboard operates under Part 121 regulations. This is actually 14 CFR 121, part of the Code of Federal Regulations. And under that code, there are definitions of both domestic and flag operations (among others). Up until now, Southwest operated as a domestic carrier, which is defined as:
Any scheduled operation conducted by any person operating any turbojet powered airplanes, or airplanes having a passenger-seat configuration of more than 9 passenger seats, excluding each crewmember seat, or airplanes having a payload capacity of more than 7,500 lb. at the following locations between any points within the 48 contiguous states of the United States (US), or operations solely within the US and specifically authorized point located outside the US.
As you can see, that includes service not only to Puerto Rico, but even service to Alaska and Hawai’i requires flag status. So becoming a flag carrier is a big first step for Southwest to greater expansion.
How do you become a flag carrier? Well, Southwest spokesperson Brandy King explained that it required more than 40 hours of flights with the FAA on the airplane and in the airline’s ops center. During those flights, Southwest, had to achieved three main goals:
- Maintain Operational Control at all times
- Always have positive communication (ops center to aircraft, and San Juan, aircraft to air traffic control and ops center)
- Operate on-time
You can scroll through Part 121 if you’d like to see all the differences, but you’ll probably be pretty bored.
The bottom line is that Southwest had to do a lot of regulatory work to get here. Why start with San Juan? Well, first of all, AirTran already flies there so it will be easier to transition the station. And since it’s in the US, it avoids any additional regulatory paperwork that comes with international flying.
Why not Hawai’i? Well Hawai’i is a whole different story that requires extended twin engine operations (ETOPS) certification and more. San Juan is a lot easier. Like I said, training wheels.
The Price is Right
There’s one other piece of the puzzle here. We all know that Southwest has struggled with getting its reservation system up to speed. Domestically, pricing is pretty straightforward. The taxes are uniformly applied with only some fees being airport-specific. But that’s not the case to San Juan (or to other places outside the lower 48 states). The percentage tax doesn’t apply. Instead there is a flat tax.
This might not seem like a big deal, but for an airline that’s had an ancient reservations system that does the same thing for every single ticket, it is a big deal. And it’s a particularly big deal for Southwest, an airline that has been shockingly slow at getting its reservation system to do anything.
This doesn’t mean that Southwest is ready to fly internationally. There is still a lot more work to do for the airline. But it is a significant first step.